I’m currently reading two different volumes of letters, and have recently finished another – Sylvia & David: The Townsend Warner/Garnett Letters edited by Richard Garnett; Dearest Jean: Rose Macaulay’s Letters to a Cousin edited by Martin Ferguson Smith; The Element of Lavishness: The Letters of William Maxwell and Sylvia Townsend Warner edited by Michael Steinman. Gosh, writing out titles, subtitles, authors, and editors is quite a lengthy process.
Anyway, it got me thinking about footnotes. Never let be said that I avoid the high-octane topics here at Stuck-in-a-Book. I have a love/hate relationship with footnotes and endnotes. If they’re not there – as they weren’t in the otherwise wonderful A Truth Universally Acknowledged collection of essays about Jane Austen – then I get frustrated. If they are there, I get easily annoyed. Something like Hermione Lee’s biography Virginia Woolf went so hugely over the top with footnotes that reading it was exhausting. For scholarly works, they are essential. But often biographies or collections of letters have both scholarly potential and the possibility of being read for pleasure – so, what to do with the paraphenalia of academia?
(and spot the deliberate mistake… oops.)
I’ll write proper reviews of all those letter collections at some point, probably after I’ve actually read them, but I’ve been intrigued by the way they’ve approached footnotes. The Garnett/Warner letters have very few, and those only when significant reference is made to someone so vaguely that a footnote is absolutely necessary to make sense of an anecdote or opinion. The Maxwell/Warner letters had scarcely more, although they did often fill in the gap when a story was being discussed. Martin Ferguson Smith, on the other hand, has so many footnotes – and such thorough footnotes – in his collection of Rose Macaulay’s letters that he actually has written more than Macaulay has in the book.
I suppose they’re not actually footnotes – not sure what the correct terminology is, but his notes come after each individual letter. Macaulay will write 1.5 pages to Ferguson Smith’s 2, perhaps. Which I thoguht would irritate me, but actually – and unusually for me – I love it! I am not reading them all; I just read the letters as though there were no footnotes – and if I’m interested or intrigued or confused by one of Macaulay’s comments, then I’ll look at the footnote. Which is a much more liberating reading experience than feeling obliged to read each note laboriously – I think I’ve found the perfect reading compromise.
Perhaps notes feel more helpful here because only one half of the correspondence is present? Or perhaps Macaulay is just more off-at-tangents than Maxwell, Warner, or Garnett in her writing, and needs Ferguson Smith’s guiding hand. Either way, he has done an astonishing amount of research. Every reference is tracked down; often he doesn’t merely give the details of a mentioned book, but an outline of the plot – or, rather than just fill in the name of a figure alluded to, he will pop in an anecdote or two. It’s a truly humbling amount of research – and I love it when Ferguson Smith’s personality sneaks into the footnotes, usually in the form of an exclamation mark in brackets; which is one of my own favourite modes of punctuation(!)
Over to you. Do you like editorial notes to abound or, erm, not abound? Footnotes, endnotes, or end-of-section notes? I know it’s a small thing, but I bet quite a few of you have opinions on the topic. In fact, I know Lyn does, for a start…